Monday 31 July 2017

Signs & Notices along the Scottish Watershed

Sorting through the photos of my Scottish Watershed walk for a selection for my book on the trip I noticed that I'd taken quite a few of signs and notices along the way that had caught my attention, some of them informative, some quirky, some puzzling. Here's a selection.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Why Trekking Poles?

Trekking poles are mainly used for support, balance and to take some weight off your legs. The last is important. I find that my legs feel less tired when I use poles, especially on high mileage days or when carrying a heavy pack. Also, by giving a workout to the arms and shoulders trekking poles help maintain strength in these areas. Before I started using poles I found that my arms and shoulders would feel sore after my first few days ski touring at the start of each winter season as they hadn’t had much usage in the five or six months since I’d last skied. Once I started using trekking poles this soreness vanished. One reason I started using poles was because my knees had started feeling very sore after long descents, especially on hard and stony ground. They’d be sore by the end of the descent and then very stiff the next day. Poles, I reckoned, might reduce this soreness. They did more than that. After a while my knees stopped hurting at all. And that is still true over twenty years later.

My evidence for the benefits of trekking poles with regard to muscle soreness is personal and anecdotal of course. Naturally, trekking pole companies make the same claims, sometimes quite colourfully as when Brasher gave the weight saved on your legs in numbers of elephants. There was little actual research to back up the claims however and what there was came from lab studies of people on treadmills and not from actual outdoor use.

However a study at Northumbria University provided more concrete evidence that poles can significantly reduce soreness after a hill walk and also help maintain muscle function. This wasn’t an indoor study or just a brief walk up a slope. The 37 men and women in the study climbed Snowdon. They were split into two groups of equal fitness. One group didn’t use poles; the other group did and were taught how to use them. To try and cut out variables that could have affected the study the walkers ate the same meal the evening before the walk, had the same breakfast, carried daypacks of the same weight and took the same scheduled rest stops. During the hike the heart rates of the walkers were recorded, along with how they perceived their exertion rates. After the hike various tests were used to assess muscle damage and function. These tests were repeated at 24, 48 and 72 hour intervals. The results were in accord with my personal experience. The pole users had far less muscle soreness and a reduced loss of strength. They recovered more quickly too. Unsurprisingly the pole users felt less sore than the non-pole users. Levels of an enzyme that indicates muscle damage were found to be much higher in the non-pole group than before the walk but almost the same in the pole users, showing that any muscle damage was minimal.

This is only one study but it does confirm the personal findings of me and many other pole users. Trekking poles really are good for your muscles and the effects are noticeable after as well as during a walk. It’s nice not to wake with aching legs the morning after a walk. This is especially significant on multi-day walks when you want to enjoy walking every day and not have to take days off while your muscles recover. Also, soreness and strained muscles can make injury more likely so using poles can reduce the chances of hurting yourself while walking. Poles can also prevent injuries by preventing slips and falls. I have descended slopes in dense vegetation or after dark when my poles often prevented me tumbling over. And if you do suffer a leg injury poles can be used as supports while you limp along. I have walked out to the road with someone with a sore ankle who found trekking poles enabled them to hike out without needing help from anyone else.

Just having trekking poles doesn’t mean you’ll instantly gain all the benefits though. You need to use them effectively. I’ve seen too many pole users waving them around pointlessly or tapping the ground ineffectively. Poles need to be held correctly and placed where they will provide support and propulsion. Handles don’t need to be gripped tightly, which just results in sore fingers and wrists. With most poles the straps take the weight and support your hands (the exceptions are Pacerpoles which have shaped handles that can be held loosely without need of straps). To use a strap like this you put your hand up through the strap from below so the strap runs between thumb and fingers and over the back of your hand. With the straps like this you can swing the poles back and forth without holding them firmly as the straps makes them secure.

To gain the most from poles the force applied to them should propel you forwards not push you sideways or impede walking by pushing you backwards. Yet all too often I see walkers place poles off to the side or a long way in front with the pole handle angled back towards the user. The pole tip should be placed in front of you so it is closer than the handle. Your arm should go straight out in front and not to the side or across your body. A full reach isn’t needed though as this can make your arms ache. Keeping your arm slightly bent and fairly relaxed is far more comfortable. You then push down on the pole so it helps propel you forwards and walk past it, letting it swing behind you as you bring the other pole forwards. The idea is to get a rhythm going that is easy to keep up which feels relaxed.

Pole length matters too. Adjustable poles are adjustable for a reason. Many people use too long poles and have to lift their arms high each time they swing the pole, which can be tiring. On flat and gently sloping terrain you should be able to hold the pole pointing straight down with the tip touching the ground with your arm bent at right angles at the elbow. On steep slopes this can be too long, again forcing you to lift your arms high, which can make you lean back, putting you out of balance. Shorter poles are needed. On short ascents you can grasp the poles lower down. Some poles have foam or rubber round the shafts for this purpose. On long ascents it’s better to adjust the pole length so you can still use the straps and handles. On descents lengthening poles stops you leaning forward, which again can affect balance. If the descent is only short placing your hand over the top of the handle provides a little more length. On long descents lengthening the poles is better, again so you can use the straps and handles. On traverses you may want a short pole in the uphill hand and a long pole in the downhill one. Here gripping the pole lower down to shorten it and putting your hand over the handle are best unless it’s a very long traverse and you won’t be changing direction.

When trekking poles first appeared they were disliked, sometimes vehemently, by many walkers. (One reader objected to poles appearing on the cover of TGO, saying that showed the editors must be in the pay of the pole makers!). People seemed to feel that using them meant you were infirm or old. That attitude is less prevalent now, though it still appears every so often. My own view is the opposite. I think poles help prevent you becoming infirm. And while they can’t stop you getting older, they can mean that your legs are less likely to feel the effects of ageing so rapidly. Many people, as I did, start using poles because they have growing problems with sore knees or ankle or back. I think it’s better to start using them before you have any of these problems. That way you may never suffer them at all.

This piece first appeared in The Great Outdoors quite a few years ago. I've edited it a little.

Monday 24 July 2017

Thirty years ago my first book was published

The cover shows Scott Steiner in Halfmoon Park in the Scapegoat Wilderness on the Continental Divide Trail

Back in the distant pre-Internet world of 1987 when print was the only place you could read anything my first book was published. The Great Backpacking Adventure was part of a series from long-gone imprint Oxford Illustrated Press whose editor, Jane Marshall, approached me to write the backpacking volume. I remember she said I'd been recommended. Who by I can't now recollect but whoever it was many thanks! At that point in my writing life I'd penned quite a few magazine articles and was editor of Footloose magazine (also long-gone) but had failed to find a publisher for any of my book ideas. I wasn't going to turn down an invitation.

That first book also brought about my introduction to computers. Up to that point I'd typed features, usually with many Tippex corrections, on a battered old second-hand typewriter. The contract for the book said I had to supply two copies of clean typescript. I knew that there was no way my minimal typing skills could produce a clean manuscript 80,000 words long. A bit of research - talking to other writers in person and on the phone, visiting electronics stores, looking at the small ads in writers' magazines - showed that paying a copy typist, buying an electronic typewriter, and buying one of these new-fangled personal computers would cost about the same. Thinking that computers would be the way forward I chose that option and was soon the proud (and confused) owner of an Amstrad PCW 8256. This had 256kb of RAM (that's not a misprint!) and a floppy disk drive. The word processing software was appropriately called Locoscript. The printer was a dot matrix one, very slow and prone to jamming. The Amstrad was sufficient though and I wrote my first two books on it.

Pictures from long ago Pyrenean trips

The book had eight pages of colour photos in the centre, all taken from transparency film. The eight walks described ranged from the Pennine Way to the Continental Divide Trail and were all written from my trail journals, which I started keeping long before I thought I'd be writing articles let alone books. I was glad I'd done so as I couldn't have written the book without them.

The Great Backpacking Adventure has long been out of print so anyone wanting to read it needs to find a second-hand copy. Looking back I can see that it sums up my first decade of long-distance walking as well as being the start of a whole series of books - I little thought at the time that thirty years later I'd be writing my twenty-sixth. Reading the Postcript for the first time in many, many years I see that I correctly predicted my life to come, writing that 'my wilderness treks are not one-off 'dreams of a lifetime' but a lifetime's occupation'. How true that has turned out to be.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Summer at Findhorn

Findhorn Bay

Sometimes the sea attracts. With a promise of sunshine and thoughts of the freshness of sea air and the spaciousness of a seascape we headed for Findhorn to walk along the beach and round to the bay.

The ebbing tide

The tide had just turned as we arrived and the shingle was two-tone - dark with wetness below the tide line, light and sundried above. The sea was tri-coloured - brown where it ran thinly over the stones, then turquoise, then deep blue. Still sinking down the steeper part of the beach it pounded the pebbles with big waves. Soon it would quieten as it reached the flatter shore before quickly running into the distance, leaving vast expanses of wet sand on which gulls and waders would prospect for food. As sand banks far out in the water started to surface seals appeared, clambering out of the waves to bask in the sunshine.

Culbin Forest reaches the sea

At the narrow inlet where Findhorn Bay pours out into the North Sea the water was racing and surging, rushing fast towards the freedom of the vast ocean. Across the deep channel the edge of  dark Culbin Forest rose along the top of steep dunes, their slopes scattered with fallen trees, brought down by the sea eating into the sand.

A tour boat sped past, fresh from seal watching. Soon Findhorn village came into view and a mass of boats and people around the marina. Here the fresh tide line was green and wet with just above it the last higher one, now dry and dusty. Ephemeral parallel lines, soon to be washed away.

The Captain's Table cafe at Findhorn Marina provided welcome refreshments before we crossed the flower-strewn dunes back to the beach.

Saturday 22 July 2017

The Great Outdoors August Issue: Big Packs, Stoves, Waferlite down jacket

In the latest issue of The Great Outdoors I review 11 60+ litre packs and 5 stoves, plus the PHD Waferlite down jacket. Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong looks at 3 cook sets and TGO Challenge co-ordinators Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden and some friends try 20 backpacking dinners.

There's some great backpacking trips in this issue. Will Renwick traverses the Welsh mountains on the Cambrian Way, Alex Roddie has an adventure in the Pyrenees, and Daniel Neilson explores the Borrowdale fells in the footsteps of the fascinating Lakeland 'Professor of Adventure' Millican Dalton.

Away from backpacking and the mountains Stefan Durkatz finds some interesting walks in South East England. Back in the hills David Gray describes the splendid Ring of Steall above Glen Nevis and Jim Perrin remembers Shutlingsloe in Cheshire.

Also in this issue Roger Smith looks at the variety of conservation schemes currently underway in places as far apart as Beinn a'Ghlo in the Scottish Highlands and Knepp in West Sussex, there's useful information and advice on walking with a dog, and ten Wild Walks everywhere from Exmoor to the North-West Highlands.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Summer Heat in the Cairngorms

The Feith Buidhe and Lochan Buidhe on the Cairngorm Plateau

The last two days have been hot and sunny in the Cairngorms, a wonderful change from the generally dull and cool weather of the last six weeks or so. On the 17th two of us went across the Cairngorm Plateau to Ben Macdui under a rich blue sky with splendidly clear views all around. There was a fairly strong wind that meant it didn't feel too hot and which, I guess, helped keep the air so clear.

Coire Domhain, Carn Etchachan & Derry Cairngorm

Whilst the higher ground was dry and crunchy underfoot the corries looked wet and all the streams were running strongly. We saw no snow apart from a few small patches high up in An Garbh Coire across the Lairig Ghru. I can't remember when there was so little snow left at this time of year.

Cairn Toul & Sgor an Lochain Uaine

There were snow buntings around the cairn at the top of the Fiacaill a'Choire Chais and on the summit of Ben Macdui waiting for any crumbs we dropped, the males handsome in their black and white summer plumage. A ptarmigan scuttled low across the rocks, probably trying to lead us away from her chicks though we didn't see any. A young wheatear bobbed from rock to rock beside the path, its dappled brown plumage good camouflage but its white rump quite distinctive. The grasses were bright green and there were red and yellow splashes of moss in the damp areas. A bumblebee fumbled across the stones, blown up by the wind we assumed. Summer on the Cairngorm Plateau. Short-lived but glorious while it lasts. On a day like this it was hard to remember the arctic feel of winter or even the rainswept greyness of recent weeks. For today it was benign and friendly, basking in summer perfection.

Looking across the Plateau to Ben Macdui with Lochan Buidhe on the left and the headwaters of the March Burn on the right and the path crossing the narrow low watershed between the two

We met maybe a dozen or so other walkers, fewer than expected on such a fine day. The only camp we saw was in Coire an Lochain where three people were swimming in the lochan, which made my companion, a keen wild swimmer, jealous as we had no time to descend into the corrie.

Miadan Creag an Leth-choin & Cairn Lochan

Monday 17 July 2017

Favourite Outdoor Gear

Tilley Hat, Paramo Katmai shirt & Pacerpoles on my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk last autumn

Looking through old files recently I came across this piece I wrote for The Great Outdoors in 2010. Back then I choose eight pieces of gear as my absolute favourites, based on years of usage. Surprisingly, seven years later I’d still pick all bar one of them, the GoLite Pinnacle, which isn’t available anymore but for which there are now alternatives I prefer, such as the Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus. The Inov8 Terroc shoes are also no longer around either, sadly as I haven’t yet found an alternative I’m really happy with.

Do I still use these items regularly? Yes. Good design lasts. Would I add anything to the list? Yes, the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar and the Paramo Katmai shirt. Do I still use these items regularly? Yes. Good design lasts.

Having tested hundreds and hundreds of items gear over the years I’ve had a unique opportunity to find out which ones I really like. These often creep up on me slowly. After a test is complete I find that I keep selecting one of the items for trip after trip until I realise it has become a real favourite. With other gear I know immediately that it’s something special so I’m not surprised when it becomes a favourite.

Favourite items can be surpassed by newer ones in terms of weight or performance of course but sentiment keeps them as favourites even if I don’t use them as much as previously. Memories are important and gear that has been on many trips collects them. I can look at a hat or a stove on a shelf and be transported back to a spectacular camp site or a wonderful day on the trail. One of these items that now mainly serves as a decoration is my old Optimus Svea 123 petrol stove. Back in the 1980s I used this little stove on the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, the longest walks I have undertaken, and just looking at it takes me back to those marvellous wilderness adventures. There are many lighter weight and more efficient stoves now though and I haven’t used the Svea for over a decade. Maybe I’ll take it out for a nostalgic weekend soon.

In some cases it’s groups of products rather than specific items that are favourites. To be fair to the ones that fall into this category here they are: Paramo (waterproofs), Rab (sleeping bags, insulated jackets, waterproofs), TarpTent (tents), Western Mountaineering (sleeping bags, down clothing), Mountain Equipment (down sleeping bags, down clothing, waterproofs), PHD (down sleeping bags, down clothing), Berghaus (clothing), Therm-A-Rest (mattresses), Exped (mattresses), MSR (stoves), Optimus (stoves), Primus (stoves, cookware), Montane (waterproofs, trousers), Icebreaker (wool clothing), Teko (wool socks), Smartwool (wool clothing), Superfeet (footbeds), Patagonia (clothing), Terra Nova (tents), Lightwave (packs, tents), Mountain Laurel Designs (tarps, tents, packs), Granite Gear (packs), Petzl (headlamps), Silva (compasses), ViewRanger (GPS mapping). All these companies make products I have enjoyed using and will continue using.

Here, though, are my absolute favourites, gear that I have used again and again and found near perfect.

Hilleberg Akto

Hilleberg Akto in the NW Highlands

I have to start with the Akto, in which I’ve camped on hundreds of nights including my continuous round of the Munros and Tops and several TGO Challenges. For me this single hoop tent has been just about ideal. It’s strong, durable and lightweight with enough room inside for gear storage and cooking. I can sit out a storm in it without feeling claustrophobic. I also know it so well that I can pitch it in a few minutes without much thought or effort, which is useful when tired after a long day. Since the Akto first appeared over twenty years ago lighter weight tents based on the same design have appeared. Some of these are very good but I doubt any will prove as durable as the Akto. I still think that if you want a tough solo backpacking tent that will last the Akto is a great choice.

Tilley Hat

I discovered Tilley Hats in 1990 ago at the start of my walk through the Yukon Territory in northern Canada. Over the years I’d tried and discarded several sun hats but not found any that were really comfortable. The Tilley felt right immediately and I bought one within minutes of trying it on despite the high price. It was worth the money and the hat was worn for much of the walk, fending off rain as well as sun. Since then the Tilley has been around the Munros and Tops, along the Arizona Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail, across Corsica and to Everest Base Camp as well as on many other trips. When I bought mine there was only one style. Now there are many styles. The model I prefer is called the T3. I like the fact that it’s cotton, despite the weight, as this breathes well and is cool in the heat. Soak it in water and it keeps your head cool for a long time. I like the tall crown, which doesn’t press on the head and so is more comfortable and cooler than ones that do, and I like the wide, stiffened brim, which shades the face and neck better than floppy ones.

Caldera Cone Stove System

Caldera Ti-Tri & Evernew 900
On my first long distance walk, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, I used a Trangia meths stove. Although it worked well I never took it on another long walk due to the weight and bulk plus the need to carry lots of fuel. Now after years of using petroleum fuel and cartridge stoves I’ve returned to meths for long distance walks. This is due to the ingenious Caldera Cone, a curved cone of thin metal that acts as a wind shield for a drinks can meths burner and as a pot support. It works just like a Trangia at a fraction of the weight. It’s fuel efficient too and boils water quite quickly for a meths stove. The basic Caldera Cone, made from aluminium, is excellent. The Ti-Tri titanium version is even better as you can also burn wood in it. And best of all is the Ti-Tri Inferno, which has a smaller inverted cone that fits inside the Caldera and makes burning wood much more efficient.

Evernew 900ml Pan

This simple titanium pan was another love-at-first-sight item. Having gone through several sets of aluminium pans, which soon became dented and scratched, I’d changed to heavier but tougher stainless steel when I saw my first titanium pan in a US outdoor store well over twenty years ago. It looked wonderful and felt even better as it was so light. The price was high but I bought it anyway. That pan has been used extensively ever since and is still in fine condition. I think it will easily outlast me. It’s also just the right size for my kind of solo cooking.


My conversion to poles came through ski touring. After a few years it dawned on me that I didn’t need to be on skis for poles to be useful and I started using them when walking. There didn’t seem to be much difference between various brands until I discovered Pacerpoles with their specially shaped handles. These felt natural and comfortable to hold and I liked not having to use straps. I also found them easier to use and more efficient. Eventually I came full circle and started using them for ski touring, where I discovered they were better than standard ski poles.

GoLite Pinnacle Pack

I’m a minimalist when it comes to packs. I prefer simple, clean designs without lots of bells and whistles. The Pinnacle fits this description well and has all the features I require – a pocket for small and light items, mesh side pockets for water bottles and maps and side straps for attaching bulky or long items and for compressing it round a small load. It’s also very light yet made from a very tough material. With 72 litres capacity it’s very roomy, which I like because it means I can carry many days food if necessary and I don’t have to pack it carefully if I’m tired or packing in a storm. I find it comfortable with loads up to 20kg and it will handle more if necessary.

Inov8 Terroc shoes

Drying sodden Inov8 Terrocs on the Pacific Northwest Trail

When I first tried Inov8 Terroc shoes five years ago I was astounded at the light weight. It felt almost as though I had nothing on my feet. I was even more impressed when I found the shoes excellent for hillwalking and backpacking. I’ve worn them frequently since and they are the most comfortable walking footwear I’ve used. The grip is excellent, they are very breathable, they dry fast and the toes and heel are quite tough. They’re obviously not as durable as a pair of leather boots but they’ve outlasted some other trail shoes and the same pair did three TGO Challenges plus other walks for a total of over 600 miles.

Grand Shelters Icebox

Building an igloo on the Moine Mhor, Cairngorms

Perhaps the most fun piece of gear I’ve used in recent years is the Icebox, a unique tool designed for building igloos. With this shaped plastic form you can make an igloo from any type of snow from powder to slush. Building your own snow shelter is exciting and satisfying. The Icebox is also practical. Igloos are strong, windproof, silent, very roomy and warmer than any tent. I’ve done three trips into the Rocky Mountains in winter without a tent but with an Icebox and have been warm and comfortable in an igloo every night, even when the temperature fell to -35ÂșC in Yellowstone. I’ve also built several igloos in the Scottish Highlands. The Icebox weighs 2.2kg and can be easily strapped to a pack or a sledge. I’ve also built several igloos in the Scottish Highlands.

Sunday 16 July 2017

On July 16, 1992, I had a spectacular camp on my walk the length of the Scandinavian Mountains

Twenty-five years ago I was camped high on the side of Utladalen in the south-west corner of the Jotunheimen National Park looking across at the alpine peaks of the Hurrungane. It was the twenty-third day of my walk the length of the Norwegian and Swedish mountains and I had completed 555 kilometres. The final total would be 2200.

To reach this point I had traversed the Setesdaleheiane and Hardangervidda mountain plateaux in mixed weather and crossded many snowmelt-filled streams and remnant snowfields. I’d enjoyed much wild and beautiful scenery but nothing to compare to the grandeur of the Hurrungane. In my journal I wrote ‘Hurrangane spikes and towers by far the finest peaks I have seen’. The weather cleared as well for the first time in over a week and I also noted that I had ‘almost dry boots’! 

My camp site I described as ‘magnificent’ and for once I was able to sit outside to cook and eat and relish the view. This fine weather would hold for the next few days as I made my way through the Jotunheimen. 

Note: the pictures are scans from Fuji Velvia slides.

Saturday 15 July 2017

July 15, 1982, I was in Northern California on the Pacific Crest Trail

Larry Lake crossing one of the last snow patches on the Pacific Crest Trail with Mount Shasta in the distance

In Northern California the snow that had made travel arduous and sometimes hazardous on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982 finally began to dwindle away. Suddenly it was summer.  Hot temperatures and too much dirt road walking had me changing back from boots to my now very worn running shoes. On the 15th July I walked 13 footsore miles from McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, where the impressive falls were duly admired, to Peavine Creek where I camped with Larry Lake on a 'well-used spot just off the road' and complained in my journal that there were too many logging trucks passing by.

Burney Falls

Against that I wrote that most of the walk was through pleasant woodland with Douglas firs and oaks and that there were many birds. I was still enjoying myself! It was my 104th day on the trail and when I made camp I'd walked 1267 miles - nearly half way. I knew though that to finish before the first winter snows I was going to have to speed up. Now that the snow had gone I hoped it would be easy to do so.

When the trail emerged from the trees the views were excellent too. I was now in the southern Cascade mountains, whose summits didn't rise above timberline except for the first of the great strato-volcanoes, Mount Shasta. These huge mountains would be dominant in views all the way to Canada.

Dusk in Northern California with Mount Shasta in the distance

The hot weather made staying cool difficult and I ended every day soaked in sweat. Washing this off made for a more comfortable night and I discovered I could use my water bag for a makeshift shower, though I couldn't always hang it in the most convenient spot.

The full story of my PCT hike is told in my book Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles.

Photographic note: all pictures are scans from Kodachrome 64 slides taken with a Pentax MX SLR camera and Pentax 50mm and 28mm lenses.

Thursday 13 July 2017

And now in colour: on Ben Avon & Beinn a'Bhuird

Sunset in Glen Quoich

Following my last monochrome post here are some colour photographs from the walk over Ben Avon and Beinn a'Bhuird. Apart from brief touches of yellow, orange and pink on both evenings plus a patch of blue sky on the second one the dominant colour was green - green woods, green grasses, and green tent. Sometimes the green was tinged with the brown of heather, sometimes tinged with yellow on the tops, but the overall impression was always of a subdued green landscape under a grey sky and broken up by grey and brown rocks and grey and white water.

Camp in upper Glen Quoich
Stob an t-Sluichd, an outlying Top of Beinn a'Bhuird
Ben Avon
Coire nan Clach, Beinn a'Bhuird
A distant late shaft of sunlight, camp on Beinn a'Bhuird
The brightest colours of the trip well after sunset on the second night

The Linn of Quoich